John Updike
 
Shortly before the first of these personal essays was composed (but several years after the soft spring night in Shillington that it describes) I was told, perhaps in jest, of someone wanting to write my biography -- to take my life, my lode of ore and heap of memories, from me! The idea seemed so repulsive that I was stimulated to put down, always with some natural hesitation and distaste, these elements of an autobiography. From the Forward to Self-Consciousness, 1989
 
Seven Selections from this Leonardo of American Letters
Bech in Rumania (excerpt)
The writer owned a car, and he drove them, with the gentleness of a pedal boat, through a maze of alleys overhung by cornices suggestive of cake frosting, of waves breaking, of seashells, lion paws, unicorn horns, and cumulus clouds. They parked across the street from a blue sign, and went into a green doorway, and down a yellow set of stairs. Music approached them from one direction and a coat-check girl in net tights from the other. It was to Bech as if he were dreaming of an American nightclub, giving it the strange spaciousness of dreams.
From Bech: A Book, 1965
 
Better than Nature (excerpt)
Ryder's modest successes -- he had patrons from early on, and toward the end he was pursued by commissions -- are entangled with the something guileless, rare, and captivating about his personality; in an art world of debonair cosmopolitans like John La Farge and Abbott Thayer, his dedication to art, despite so little apparent talent for it, savored of heroism and sanctity. His heedless techniques, his trite and wispy poems (collected in the Homer-Goodrich volume and quoted by Broun), the dim melodrama of his fairy-tale tableaux, and his decay, after 1900, into grubby eccentricity and counterproductive obsessiveness all conspire to suggest that Ryder was a bit of a simpleton. Americans, with their basically millennial expectations, admire holy fools, especially in the arts, and the full-blown Ryder, combining Whitman's beard with Emily Dickinson's reclusiveness, is our holy fool of painting. Puritanism continues to shape our collective aesthetic sensibility if not our personal behavior; it values sincerity and prefers to a suspect facility like John Singer Sargent's a definite awkwardness, an evident wrestle with difficulty, like Ryder's. In its world-hating heart, Puritanism admires, as ultimate proof of sincerity, self-destruction, whether it comes as the plastic slide of Ryder's gumbo or Pollock's drunken car crash. On such disdainful negations are lofty reputations built.
On Albert Pinkham Ryder from Still Looking, Essays on American Art, 2005
 
Dog's Death
She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, "Good dog! Good dog!"

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest's bed.
We found her twisted limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet's, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.
First encountered in Garrison Keillor's Good Poems, 2002
 
Famous Aimee (excerpt)
Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America by Matthew Avery Sutton. 351 pp. Harvard University Press, 2007.

The name of Aimee Semple McPherson resonates faintly now -- a rather comical run of syllables composed of a first name bestowed by a rapt young mother, Minnie Kennedy, in an Ontario farmhouse in 1890, and the last names of Aimee's first two husbands, Robert Semple and Harold McPherson. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s she was one of the most famous women in America -- for a time, the most famous, according to one biographer. After running away from her second husband in 1915, she became a full-time revival preacher, in a white dress and a military cape. She not only preached, she healed, having herself experienced a broken ankle and torn ligaments abruptly healed by prayer. She wrote:

I suddenly felt as if a shock of electricity had struck my foot. It flowed through my whole body, causing me to shake and tremble under the power of God. Instantaneously my foot was perfectly healed..
From Americana in Higher Gossip, Essays and Criticism, 2011
 
Flight (excerpt)
At the age of seventeen, in the fall of my senior year, I went with three girls to debate at a high school over a hundred miles away. They were, all three, bright girls, A students; they were disfigured by A's as if by acne. Yet even so it excited me to be mounting a train with them early on a Friday morning, at an hour when our schoolmates miles away were slumping into the seats of their first class. Sunshine spread broad bars of dust down the length of the half-empty car, and through the windows Pennsylvania unravelled in a long brown scroll scribbled with industry. Black pipes raced beside the tracks for miles. At rhythmic intervals one of them looped upward, like the Greek letter omega. "Why does it do that?" I asked. "Is it sick?"

"Condensation?" Judith Potteiger suggested in her shy, transparent voice. She loved science.

"No," I said. "It's in pain. It's writhing! It's going to grab the train! Look out!" I ducked, honestly a little scared. All the girls laughed.

Judith and Catherine Miller were in my class, and expected me to be amusing; the third girl, a plump small junior named Molly Bingaman, had not known what to expect. It was her fresh audience I was playing to.
From Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, 1959
 
Howells as Anti-Novelist (excerpt from Harvard University address, May 1, 1987)
This year is the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of William Dean Howells's birth, and the fact has been celebrated but quietly. Few writers filled the American literary sky as amply as Howells in his prime; few have fallen so relatively far into disesteem. We remember Howells, if we do, as a genial broad valley between Mark Twain and Henry James -- a cultivated and well-travelled Ohioan able to appreciate two great writers who could not at all appreciate each other. And then there was something about his calling himself a "realist," and depicting "the American girl," and turning toward socialism in middle age.
From Odd Jobs, 1991
 
Roger's Version, ii (excerpt)
In contrast with the sour quarrelsome atmosphere and deteriorating ceiling of our kitchen, how happy the Kreigmans appeared in their dining alcove, their multicolored lamp just barely illuminating the shadowy walls, which they, like most academic families, have strewn with clumps of eclectic objects -- African masks and drums, Carpathian shepherds' horns, Ethiopian crosses, Soviet balalaikas -- displayed as evidence of foreign travel, like the mounted heads of kudus or leopards for another social class, in another time and empire.
From Roger's Version, 1986
 
A Sandstone Farmhouse (excerpt)
Five years after the September when they had moved, Joey went to college. Essentially, he never returned. He married in his senior year, and after graduation moved to New York City. Another of his mother's visions, along with that of the farm as paradise, was of him as a poet; he fulfilled this heroic task as best he could, by going to work for an ad agency and devoting himself to the search for the arresting phrase and image, on the edge of the indecent, that incites people to buy -- that gives them permission, from the mythic world of fabricated symbols, to spend. The business was like poetry in that you needed only a few lucky hits, and he had his share, and couldn't complain. He never again had to get on a bus with a shovel.
Wildlife (excerpt)
The boy greeted his father with complaints, and looked exhausted. He stooped, and had not shaved for a day or two, so that black whiskers of alarming virility stood out on his jaw and chin. "I've been trying to impose some order on the bushes," he explained. "Mom just lets everything grow. She has this philosophy that every plant has a right to live."
From The Afterlife and Other Stories, 1995
 
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